By Ridley Seawood and Ryan Fatica
As of Thursday morning, 123 prisoners at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Canada had tested positive for COVID-19 according to the Correctional Service of Canada. In the midst of the outbreak, prisoners at the facility began a hunger strike this week with some reporting that the conditions have pushed them to make a “suicide pact.”
According to prisoner advocate Sherri Maier with Beyond Prison Walls Canada, prisoners at the facility have been on lockdown since December 12. Maier reports that in response to what she says are unsafe and inhumane conditions of the quarantine, prisoners on unit B1-2 launched a hunger strike beginning Saturday, December 19.
On December 20, in a statement released to the media, Maier addressed the Office of the Correctional Investigator regarding the complaints of the hunger strikers and included audio from her conversations with Bronson Gordon, a person imprisoned in the B1-2 unit at Saskatchewan Penitentiary who she supports from the outside.
According to Gordon, prisoners who have tested positive for COVID-19 in his unit are not being moved to isolation units, creating a precarious situation by putting everyone in the unit at risk for contracting the virus. Further, not removing infected prisoners from their units upon a positive test requires every unit to be on 24 hour lock-down, Gordon says, as a measure to control the spread, with prisoners only being allowed outside of their cells for 30 minutes every other day to shower, access the yard, and call loved ones.
Prisoner advocacy groups have criticized the reduced contact with family members that has resulted from COVID restrictions. Pierre E. Hawkins, Public Legal Counsel for the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan pointed out the impact these restrictions have on families at the holidays. “Imprisonment always takes a significant toll on the family unit. The families of inmates rely on telephone contact with their loved one in order to maintain some sense of normalcy during the holidays,” Hawkins wrote in a statement to Perilous. “This is particularly true for young children who have an incarcerated parent. We have heard from families of inmates who now have limited contact and are afraid for the health and safety of their loved ones. It is difficult to imagine the toll that this fear takes on inmates’ spouses, children and parents.”
Jeff Campbell, spokesperson for the Correctional Service of Canada, confirmed that Saskatchewan Penitentiary staff were informed of the strike on December 21 and that several prisoners decided to accept meals following a meeting with institutional management in which they discussed the striking prisoners’ concerns. Campbell asserts that the facility has contracted with professional cleaners to ensure that the facility is being kept thoroughly sanitized and that additional cleaning rotations have been implemented.
Campbell’s statements stand in stark contrast to what some prisoners are telling Maier. According to her, prisoners say that “one unit is full of bags of garbage as these men put their garbage outside their cell but there is no cleaner to take it out.”
Maier reports hearing from prisoners since before the current outbreak that guards had denied prisoners’ requests for soap to wash their hands and cleaning supplies for sanitizing their cells. What’s more, Maier says that some of the men she is advocating for are at high risk for severe cases of the virus because of compromised immune systems.
In an audio recording of a phone call with Gordon that Maier shared with Perilous, Gordon recounted witnessing one of the men on his unit suffer a severe anxiety attack and subsequently lose consciousness. Gordon and other prisoners banged on the walls in an appeal to guards for medical attention, but, according to Gordon, staff never came to administer first aid. Another prisoner that Maier is in touch with likened the conditions in which he and other prisoners are being held to that of animals at the pound.
Gordon says that prison officials haven’t been processing requests to add funds to prisoners’ phone accounts, leaving many unable to call family during the holidays. This mental stress on top of the fear associated with the outbreak of the virus is causing some prisoners’ mental health to decline rapidly, prisoners report.
In a follow up letter to the CSC written on Dec. 23, Maier says conditions at the prison are worsening. Both Maier and Campbell have confirmed the hunger strike has concluded, but Maier has been informed by prisoner Bronson that at least 3 prisoners are entering in to a “suicide pact” in response to the harsh conditions.
In a phone call on Dec. 21, Bronson told Maier “I’ve never cut my arm or anything, but I told the people that I’d be the first one to do it.” Beyond speaking of the mental deterioration that he and his unit mates are experiencing by being locked in their cells at such lengths, Bronson says he is also losing his physical strength.
The John Howard Society of Saskatchewan has repeatedly expressed concern about the impact of quarantine measures on the mental health of prisoners. “Inmates have significantly higher rates of mental illness than the general population.” Hawkins wrote in a statement to Perilous. “When inmates are locked in their cells for all but a half hour per day, those mental health issues are made worse. With little to do and a legitimate fear that the virus will reach them, inmates sit in locked cells, afraid for their lives. While restriction of movement may be necessary to contain the virus, it also causes significant setbacks on the path to rehabilitation.”
In an open letter to the CSC, Maier wrote that prisoners have told her that when they informed guards of their suicide pact guards “basically told the prisoners they don’t care and do not have to do anything.” The prisoners are asking that they be let out “in groups of 4 or 6 for a couple hours rather than one at a time for 30 minutes.”
As the number of covid-19 cases continue to grow at this facility, prisoners’ families and advocates argue that the CSC needs to call in other agencies to deal with the growing health crisis and inhumane conditions to which the people held at Saskatchewan Penitentiary are being subjected.
To many, the solution to the problem of COVID outbreaks in prisons, jails and detention centers is quite clear: the immediate reduction of the prison population. “We repeat the calls made by our national affiliate” Hawkins wrote, “including, among others, that Minister Blair use his ministerial powers to reduce the number of vulnerable people held in Canada’s penitentiaries.”